Author Slava Malamud
(ISN) – Russia – With the ruble plummeting and the KHL hurting, Russian hockey fans look to the youth for the much-needed good vibes. This team is capable of delivering.
It may now be more of a tradition than anything else, but the Russian national team is routinely considered one of the favourites when it comes to the IIHF World Junior Championship. If not the favorite, of course. The Russians’ ability to come up with seemingly inexhaustible supplies of mind-boggling skill and speed at the junior level is not any kind of a surprise for anyone even vaguely familiar with hockey.
Whether this will be a year the Russians fulfil their eternal promise or not, is another matter. One thing is for certain: with the crumbling Russian economy, the plummeting ruble and the uncertain future facing the local league KHL (and the major junior circuit, MHL, for that matter), Russians could sure use a bit of good news nowadays. To be sure, this team is fully capable of delivering them.
It begins with the head coach, Valeri Bragin, who engineered the last Russian U20 triumph, in Buffalo four years ago and is back behind the bench. Bragin’s style, which combines the puck-controlling, east-west-passing ways of the Soviet hockey school, with the speeds and physicality the modern game demands, was effective enough to give the Russians a decisive victory in the 2014 Subway Super Series against the select teams of three Canadian major junior leagues.
Bragin’s winning ways and apparently great command of teenage psychology (nobody in Russia has forgotten the never-say-die attitude of his 2011 team) will be a big boost for the team, but this time the Russian coach will not have the likes of Yevgeni Kuznetsov or Vladimir Tarasenko setting the tone up front. Still, there is enough skill on the roster to be an extremely formidable foe for anyone.
Russia’s best and biggest hope may be in goal, where it features SKA St. Petersburg’s Igor Shestyorkin, who is already being touted as the next great Russian goalie and “Tretiak’s heir”, and Ilya Sorokin of Metallurg Novokuznetsk. Both were picked in the NHL draft by New York teams (Sorokin went to the Islanders in the third round, Shestyorkin to the Rangers in the fourth) and are considered potential No. 1 goaltenders at the highest level. Shestyorkin in particular put in a spectacular performance in the Super Series where Russia was routinely outshot by a wide margin.
But, as usual, Russia will use the opportunity to showcase some of its formidable offensive talent. The St. Louis Blues’ second-round pick Ivan Barbashyov, currently with the Moncton Wildcats, is a reliable and versatile centre who can bring the skill and physicality on both sides of the ice.
His friend, linemate and fellow Moncton player Vladimir Tkachyov is your stereotypical Russian winger with skill and speed in abundance. Tkachyov is very undersized, something that has prevented him from getting drafted, but he certainly impressed the Edmonton Oilers in the training camp last September. The NHL team even made an attempt to sign the tiny forward, but the league had ruled the contract ineligible, something the Russian national junior team should definitely thank Gary Bettman for. Tkachyov is coming off an injury that made him miss the Super Series, but at full strength, and on the same line with Barbashyov, he will be a fearsome sight for the opposing defences.
Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds’ offensive star Sergei Tolchinski, who is predicted a bright future with the Carolina Hurricanes, is another small-statured scoring machine who is looking to light up the nets in Canada. So will Metallurg Magnitogorsk standout Vladislav Kamenev, HIFK Helsinki’s Nikolai Goldobin (a first-round draft pick by San Jose) and the entertaining dangled Pavel Buchnevich from Severstal Cherepovets.
It was Buchnevich who, when asked recently about the supposed lack of “real stars” on the Russian roster, gave the most comprehensive answer.
“Why do we need stars?” asked the compact-sized winger who was picked by the Rangers in the third round in 2013. “Does Dynamo Moscow have stars? They’ve earned two Gagarin Cups. And take SKA, where every player is a star. They’ve never been champions. I don’t care if I become the top scorer of the tournament. Winning is what’s important.”
Whether it be Buchnevich, or Shestyorkin, or the experienced Anatoli Golyshev who, thanks to the weakness of his KHL team Avtomobilist Yekaterinburg, has amassed an impressive resume of top-level games at his young age, Russia will need a hero or two to make it a gold-medal contender. Which is something the country could really use right about now.
The star power is definitely not the same, but the good mixture of size and skill, plus a better-than-usual defence and a strong goaltender should keep the Russians in the medal hunt. A semi-final appearance is definitely expected but gold medals are probably a long shot.